February 16: Rachmaninov Collaboration

LITURGY AND THEATRE MIX IN MUSIC

The smell of incense welcomed the audience to Exeter Cathedral on Saturday 5 March and an innovative performance by the Exeter Festival Chorus, singing with the Bath Bach Choir under the direction of Nigel Perrin (assisted by Peter Adcock), of Rachmaninov's Vespers (more properly called the All-Night Vigil). With the various movements interspersed with 11 of the same composer's Preludes played by well-known pianist Peter Donohoe, this was no static interpretation. There was movement from the start, when the opening six Vesper pieces were sung in a darkened building lit only by candlelight, the choir's singing of the opening call to worship from the two side aisles giving a striking antiphonal effect to the music. This movement was maintained throughout the performance, with choir members at times occupying different positions around the nave to give maximum effect to the textures and content of the music. (Their movement will at least have counteracted the lack of heat in the Cathedral!)

As might be expected of forces coached by Nigel Perrin, performance standards were gratifyingly high. Enhanced by the authority of Peter Donohoe's performances of the solo Preludes, the choir managed the varied challenges of the Vespers with confidence, accuracy and meaning. The Preludes were carefully chosen with appropriate key relations to the choral music around them, undoubtedly a help to the choir in its pitching of the unaccompanied vocal score. The performances of Khvalite imia Ghospodi and Slava v vishnikh Bogu were particularly striking, but equally impressive, and moving, was the singing of Bogoroditse Devo as the choir retired from the nave of the Cathedral to bring the vesper component of the work to an end. No review of a performance of the Vespers would be complete without some reference to the basses of the choir who have the challenge of singing bottom Cs; yes, they made it, and (almost) successfully reached the bottom B flat in Nine otpushchayeshi (Nunc Dimittis)! A word of praise, too, to Rupert Drury who sang the brief tenor solos – his vocal timbre was ideal for this work. The informative programme notes were provided by Diana de la Cour.

 In his introduction to the performance, Nigel Perrin wrote of presenting a theatrical feast. So, did it work as such? Inevitably, there was a tension between the liturgical content of the Vespers and the virtuoso recital nature of the solo piano Preludes which created some uncertainty in the mind of the listener. Yes, the Vespers are dramatic as well as contemplative and, indeed, their first performance was not in a church. But the Preludes, however carefully chosen generally not to include the overtly stormy and martial numbers, are concert hall pieces and at times, some may have thought they were hearing two different experiences. Others will have undoubtedly thought differently. However, whatever the varied judgements of the audience, how good it is to have in the Exeter Festival Chorus a high-class choir which dares to innovate. We may not always agree, but how stimulating it is to be challenged!

 David Batty